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Dirty deeds: and done dirt cheap

Aun Hengly. Photo by Amanda Sinclair

After several months of soul-searching, Aun Hengly finds his true self in helping others

A group of NGOs specialising in sanitation has found a way to combine the entrepreneurship of village-level concrete product makers and the influence of village leaders to offer water-flush toilets and disposal pits for 150,000 riels ($US37)

With stewardship from Australian public health specialist Lyn McLennan of Lien Aid, following a study of why and how rural Cambodians buy toilets in the first place, the action is making remarkable headway in preventing disease by stopping “open defecation”.

The rural practice of people squatting down to defecate on the ground anywhere around the farm or village spreads disease through flies, animals and others means and is recognised as a key public-health issue in the Cambodian countryside.

As part of a larger project under the acronym WASH, funded by the United States Agency for International Development , through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, WaterSHED program and Lien Aid, the Cambodia team operates in three provinces, Kampong Speu, Kampong Cham and Takeo with a “hands-off” sanitation-marketing approach.

That means there’s no giveaways of toilets, but rather an integrated approach that puts the local cement man in the toilet business and engages the local leadership to fill schoolrooms with people to find out how residents can inexpensively acquire their own toilets.

An estimated 85 percent of Cambodia’s population of 14 million live in rural areas, with only 23 percent of Cambodians having access to toilets, known as “improved sanitation.”

In operation and conducting research since 2007 aimed at improving public health, the research of Lien Aid and others indicates that 80 percent of Cambodian households with latrines had purchased them from local private sellers and paid with their own money – and that 95 percent of the population was aware of the need for safe water, sanitation and hygiene.

“You can have a toilet tomorrow,” says marketing manager Aun Hengly of WaterSHED Cambodia, a motivated young Cambodian and a driving force of the project.

Aun Hengly uses shock tactics on posters that show both a man and a dog squatting in open defecation, along with the message “A dog can’t use a latrine, but you can.”

Local leaders help map the villages showing which families have toilets and which do not and they use piles of sand on a table to illustrate open defecation, calculating the daily deposits of open human faeces.

Some of the tactics used on the project were pioneered in India under the Community Led Total Sanitation program.

“This project is about engaging households to buy their own toilets,” Aun Hengly said, noting that Cambodia had fewer toilets per capita than Laos or Myanmar.

“In Cambodia, people don’t like shared public toilets … they want their own,” Aun Hengly said.

To the village supplier Aun Hengly sells a steel mould for the making of a concrete toilet base, upon which the popular “pan-and-slab” toilet model can be placed.

A blue PVC pipe leads at an angle underground into an absorption pit made of three concrete rings, of the type commonly manufactured all over Cambodia. The local concrete maker has his business thus enhanced by Aun Hengly’s team, as the village leaders call a meeting of local residents where copies of the brochure are given out, and people can sign up, even if they don’t have the money right away.

On January 13, in the village of Ra in Kampong Speu, an amazing 30 toilet orders at $37.50 each were immediately made following the sales presentation with most people preferring to pay more for an upgrade.

The purchasers, the sales agents and the manufacturers were all happy about it.

Aun Hengly made the point that rural sanitation was by Cambodians and for Cambodians.

“As Cambodians we have the ability to manage this by ourselves,” he said.

“No need to have management from foreigners.  We just need opportunity and support.”

The village of Ra has a population of 509, of which 213 are female, constituting a total of 106 families.

On January 13, the village leaders from nearby Klang, with 86 families and Trapeang Ang Krong with 90 families, invited everyone to Ra school for a presentation on how to get inexpensive toilets for their homes.

Following the presentation, people crowded around the desk to sign up.

On hand were supplier Yum Youm and the deputy director for the Kampong Speu Provincial Department of Rural Development, Pasuong Saokun.

Aun Hengly is finishing his MBA from Preston University in the US by distance learning and previously worked for the World Toilet Organisation. Before that he was executive director of RainWater Cambodia, a local NGO.

“In terms of the project overall, we’re seeing the suppliers working very quickly,” he said.

“One supplier made 40 latrines in two weeks and has delivered 15 of them already.

“To talk to the people I need to understand what they are thinking, what they want and what they can do.

“If we promise something – we have to do it – and not just talk.  Once they see us work hard, they will work hard too. We lead by example and we need to motivate them. Not everybody is inspired by money.”

Aun Hengly was born in Prey Veng in 1983. His family were poor and his father worked as a transporter.

“I got my MBA with my own money and I support my brother and sister to study,” he said.

“Now I know who I am,” he said. “Through this work I help a lot of businessmen improve their business and through that help Cambodians improve their lot.

“You have to have the right attitude:  high commitment, work hard, open minded and honest.

“For me working with the private sector is the way to help people through enterprise.”

In addition to Aun Hengly, other Cambodian team members involved with the project include Ken Savath, Lor Sengvichet, Sim Vannak, Sim Sopheak and Han Seyha.

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